By Todd Beamon
WASHINGTON – Former IRS supervisor Lois Lerner emailed colleagues urging them to be careful about what they put in their own messages because the information could be discovered by congressional investigators.
But her caution came back to bite her Wednesday as Rep. Darrell Issa released her email that warned about the dangers of such electronic communications.
“I was cautioning folks about email and how we have several occasions where Congress has asked for emails,” Lerner wrote on April 9, 2013. “We need to be cautious about what we say in emails.”
Lerner’s message was written 12 days after she read a draft report on the targeting of tea party and conservative groups by the IRS inspector general and suggested that top agency officials communicated among themselves via an instant-messaging system that was not regularly archived.
Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, released the email at a hearing with IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. The documents were turned over to the panel last week, more than a year after the Oversight Committee subpoenaed all documents relating to the targeting scandal that began in 2010 and continued through the 2012 presidential election.
Among the groups singled out for special scrutiny were the Tea Party Patriots; True the Vote, the voter-rights organization based in Houston, and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, the nonprofit political group advised by Republican strategist Karl Rove.
Lerner retired last year as head of the unit that screened the nonprofit groups’ applications for tax-exempt status. She was held in contempt of Congress in May for refusing to testify before Issa’s committee.
The IRS disclosed last month that it had lost thousands of Lerner’s emails because her computer crashed in the summer of 2011. The hard drives of at least seven other employees connected to the tea party investigation also crashed.
Koskinen has acknowledged to lawmakers that Lerner’s hard drive was recycled and presumably destroyed. Backup tapes also were routinely reused after six months.
The IRS generated 24,000 Lerner emails from 2009 to 2011 for investigators because she had copied in other agency employees. The IRS had said that it pieced together the emails from the computers of 83 other workers.
The new Lerner emails will further fuel Republican charges of a cover-up at the embattled agency. Koskinen took the helm in December.
The April 2013 email trail began with Lerner’s query to Maria Hooke, an IRS technology employee, and Nanette Downing, the manager of the unit that evaluated the applications. Lerner referenced “conversations” by “OCS” â€” the Microsoft instant-messaging system the IRS used.
Lerner apparently was concerned about whether such messages were regularly saved and could be part of any subpoena for data by congressional investigators.
“Someone asked if OCS conversations were also searchable â€” I donâ€™t know, but told them I would get back to them,” she said in the email, which was sent at 1:50 p.m. “Do you know?”
“OCS messages are not set to automatically save as the standard; however the functionality exists within the software,” Hooke responded at 2:45 p.m. “That being said the parties involved in an OCS conversation can copy and save the contents of the conversation to an email or file.”
Hooke then noted that such conversations could be saved â€” and included in a congressional subpoena.
“To date, OCS conversations are not specifically identified as part of the Electronic Data Request â€¦ for information, however, if one of the parties saved the conversation as an email or file they would become part of the electronic search.
“My general recommendation is to treat the conversation as if it could/is being saved somewhere, as it is possible for either party of the conversation to retain the information and have it turn up as part of an electronic search,” Hooke concluded. “Make sense?”
“Perfect,” Lerner replied at 2:51 p.m.
Lerner’s April 2013 e-mails came 12 days after the inspector general gave her a draft of his audit on the targeting scandal. She later disclosed the scandal in response to a planted question at an American Bar Association meeting.
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, one of the Oversight Committee’s GOP members, challenged Koskinen about the Lerner emails. The IRS chief responded that he had never seen the document and that he was unfamiliar with the instant-messaging system.
The Oversight Committee is one of three congressional panels investigating the IRS scandal. The others are the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee.
The Justice Department and the IRS inspector general are also conducting investigations.